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Interview: Robert Myles reflects on The Show Must Go Online

The actor & director talks about the hit Shakespeare series

Interview: Robert Myles reflects on The Show Must Go Online

As the series draws to a close, completing 40 shows within eight months, actor and director Robert Myles looks back on the successes of The Show Must Go Online and the rise of Zoom theatre. The Tempest will be the final show in the Shakespeare series that began at the end of March.

When you had the first show under your belt all those months ago, did you imagine quite how big this would all become and how important it would be for audiences & everyone taking part?

No, is the simple and honest answer. It's always a delight with projects like this that the unintended consequences are the things that matter the most and it's what you could never expect or never imagine. Annabelle's just sent us in her fan art for Henry VIII and as we get close to the end of the run, we were just remarking on how extraordinary it was the first time that someone actually created fan art for the show! And that was something that we really never imagined was a thing that was going to happen. And that's just like one tiny element of it.

We never imagined that we would have a store with merchandise, to be honest we never imagined that we would even get actors for whom English isn't their first language would want to get involved. So there's been an amazing cascade of bonuses that have all grown up and flourished out of this original idea. I think it's just testament to the power of Shakespeare as a unifier, and the power of Shakespeare to speak to that universal fundamentally human part of us that has meant that everybody has come together and rallied round it.

One big thing that you include in your shows are the Q&As and the guest introductions which are really valuable for insight into both the production and the text. It must be great for students studying plays - was that something that you were thinking could be an extra resource?

Absolutely. Originally Ben Crystal did the very first one, and since then he's curated all of the others which has been another one of those unintended consequences; a testament to 'yes-anding', as we call it, or 'greenhousing', where if someone comes to you with a good idea you say "Yes, that sounds great, and what if we do this?" and you just try and make sure that you're making the most of every opportunity that's being presented to you. We wanted to create Shakespeare for everyone and we wanted to make sure that everyone had the best chance to get the most out of their experience; we never wanted to make the assumption that people would know anything about the play or have seen the play before.

We want people to be able to talk through their own specialisations and areas of interest, because it's always lovely to hear people talking about what they're passionate about. But what we also need is just key topline summary of the plot, the themes, and what people should be looking out for. If people have got those little hooks and anchors they can hold onto while they're still tuning their ear into the language then it just helps to make it that bit more accessible, even to people who might not necessarily have come to Shakespeare before. The YouTube algorithms keep pitching random people into the livestream to watch, and so for that reason I think is really helpful to have a little primer there for people who maybe haven't seen a Shakespeare before.

What has been a real boon to the series, is as it's gone on it's been really responsive to the wider world and the kind of zeitgeist that we inhabit. One of the notes that I give to the actors when we start is that we all exist in a context, and there's sometimes a pressure put on artists to deny the context that they're in in order to produce the work and "be professional". We try and get people out of that headspace as quickly as possible; we are living in this most insane of years and it would be daft to try and not acknowledge that. What Ben's done with the introductions is acknowledge the craziness of the year, but also the kind of people whose voices are struggling to be heard. And so we started off with a lot of younger female-presenting academics, whose voices traditionally haven't been spotlighted in quite the same way.

As the Black Lives Matter movement came to prominence Ben very wisely switched focus to academics of colour to make sure that their voices were being heard as well. I think that's been one of the real, unintended from the very beginning, but nevertheless deliberately manoeuvred kind of choices that's been made in order to make this just as fruitful, beneficial, and nourishing as possible, for as many people as possible.

What's also proved useful is to have members of the company to call upon to give short talks on important matters prior to a handful of shows.

We're fortunate enough to have a platform here, and again that's not something that we necessarily anticipated would have been the case, but obviously you need to be responsible in how you use it. I think Black Lives Matter might have been the first one; when there's something as important as that and you do value the broader world in which the performers exist, you welcome that into the room instead of trying to block it out. What I hope it demonstrates is that Shakespeare, though 400 plus years old, is timeless because of its relevance to humanity and human problems - we still have a lot of the same problems that Shakespeare was writing about, particularly when it comes to Black Lives Matter, racism, misogyny, all these enduring vices that we haven't been able to shake as a society.

The fact that you have text here that is more than 450 years old that articulates those same problems, I think can help to highlight the sense of urgency in being proactive in tackling these things, and finally starting to push them toward the rear view mirror. I don't want to give the impression of "we've fixed racism by having one person talk about it for five minutes", it's not like that at all, but it is just about putting a rock on the pile of progress really.

Another way The Show Must Go Online goes beyond simply putting on a play is in its approach to casting. I imagine with your previous experience with Merely Theatre it was almost inevitable that you would go down the route of more inclusive casting?

They're always really interesting conversations to have. I think Merely was an amazing for shaking any kind of preconception about who can play what, because obviously it was a very small company of friends who were getting together to push and stretch themselves as much as anything; in Merely you had five actors, so you're multi-roling four or five characters, and you're really finding out what your range - I think that definitely meant that I didn't come to Shakespeare with the same presumptions or barriers as some people do when it comes to casting.

Obviously Sydney Aldridge was a huge contributor as well. When we brought her on we said we want to make sure that we are an example of best practice when it comes to casting, and we see that as making sure that we're getting as many global majority actors involved as we can. I think it was one of the Henry VI shows where we cast every global majority actor that applied, because we wanted to make sure that people knew that this was a safe space for them and that they were going to be welcome here, even if they didn't have loads of Shakespeare experience before.

We made an energetic investment in the early days of trying to set out our stall to champion the values that mattered to us, and that we feel should matter in theatre more generally, because theatre's audience is narrowing and declining and ageing out in a lot of ways, especially outside of London. Commercial theatre is only one branch - no tree is going to live if it only has one branch, and the branches of theatre have been struggling for a long time. I think part of that is because we're not making everyone feel like this is for them and so that's what we wanted to try and do by being as open as possible with all the various kind of casting demographics.

I hope it does encourage people to be braver with those choices, because I think that's what theatre needs. What came out of theatre during lockdown 1 was very trad, safe, conservative star-heavy news, and if we get a do-over in lockdown 2, it should be bold, brave, innovative, disruptive work. I think it was Chichester Festival Theatre whose first digital offering was a Sarah Kane play. That's more like it! I'm very aware that casual viewers will think "who's that?" and "why does that matter?", and so we've got a job to do in selling the brave and the bold version of theatre to make sure the returns are there. For a generations we have gotten safer and safer until that's all that audiences expect from theatre, and so when something comes along that doesn't play safe, it's very exciting to those that are already in theatre, but those who have already left it behind may not ever hear about it or understand why they might want to get excited about it. So I think there is a very real case to be made for championing theatre done differently.

Perhaps having the star casting in the slightly less obvious things to try and draw people in, and bringing some newer names into the slightly more 'traditional' shows?

Absolutely. The stars are stars for a reason, and they're very good! I don't want any of this to sound like I've got issues with stars being cast, it's not that at all. There's a story, which may be apocryphal but it certainly inspires, about Robin Williams making sure that there were two homeless people employed on every film set that he was working on. Not necessarily as actors, but as cleaners or whatever else. It speaks to the generosity of the man and the idea that you can use your influence for good. I just wonder if there's a version of this where if we do have star casting we make sure that there is a graduate actor, a working class actor who couldn't afford drama school... Actors from underrepresented backgrounds of all types making up the cast around those stars, so that then they get to see why that person is as good as they are, observe the process that they're going through, and just absorb through osmosis how that talent has got to where it is.

That's been one of the great privileges of TSMGO, getting to work with actors from the Globe, from the RSC, from Reduced Shakespeare Company; getting those veterans present in the room, working the way they work, while there are far less experienced people sharing that space with them and getting to see this is how it's done. Our far less experienced actors have gotten to see best practice in action, how these actors work and what their approach is, and be inspired and informed by that - so that when they go into the wider world you know they've got slightly broader toolkit.

How was your experience of doing the Pop Shakespeare series alongside the main plays back in the summer?

That was an absolute whirlwind! What was really fun was having Ian Doescher and his publisher involved and in the room and so supportive. Universal Studios tweeted about our Back to the Future! That was delightful. Obviously it was vastly different to doing Shakespeare because the writer has been dead for 400 years, so you've just got to do a bit of guesswork, whereas with Ian in the room he can steer it slightly. What was really fun about them was obviously making sure that we have other directors heading up three out of the four of those; I did Star Wars, the first one, just to get the ball rolling, but then it was really lovely being able to welcome three female directors. Two of the shows were female-led stories, so it was important to have women directing those.

I think the Pop Shakespeares can really sell in casual audiences on classical work. There are fans of Back to the Future, Star Wars, Mean Girls, and Clueless who probably wouldn't as a first choice watch a Shakespeare play, but once they watched the Pop Shakespeares hopefully they can see some of the virtues of verse and the way classical theatre works. I can imagine it would be very easy to do very bad blank verse, ruining both the source material and putting people off Shakespeare at the same time, but the fact that Ian has managed to hack Shakespeare's brain enough to be able to speak in his voice is an extraordinary superpower, and I feel like he's using that superpower for good. It's an ambition of mine to do a Star Wars history cycle where we do A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi in rep like the kind of Henry VI part one, two and three.

Interview: Robert Myles reflects on The Show Must Go Online
Robert Myles

How was it going from directing to performing when you played Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

It was great because, compared to most of the actors who come to this for the first time ever when they play their first role, I had been in the room for several weeks and I got to learn from all of the other actors who were wrestling with the medium and trying to do their best work within it. I have seen the research and development that we've done week on week, and I think I was in a really privileged position in comparison to the average actor who jumps in with both feet and then in two and a half days is giving a cracking performance. I'd also played Bottom before, although a lot of that work wasn't relevant because it's a totally new way of trying to embody the character that works for the camera. And I was really glad that we had Emily Ingram associate directing those Mechanicals scenes, so that we still had an outside eye on there but could still see how that performance was clicking into place with what everybody else is doing.

It was an unbridled joy to work with Gabrielle Shepherd in particular as Quince, because it definitely feels like a love story between Quince and Bottom, a love-hate story if you will, and I think Gabrielle brought that to life wonderfully; it's still one of my favourite parts of that show. Zoom allows you to do what other mediums can't, which is to have Bottom and Quince with equal spotlight side by side while Bottom is doing his deaths and Quince is having his meltdown. Normally you would get one or the other, one of them would have to be kind of prioritised, but because of the democracy of this particular medium you got to live through both of those things in parallel and I thought that was absolutely wonderful.

Obviously we used augmented reality for the first time for Bottom, quite notably, so that was really fun figuring out how we had to puppeteer your own head because your expressions aren't necessarily coming through, so you've got to be much more physically animated and make sure that you use gesture work a lot more. It was awesome, frankly, it was great fun.

It was also great seeing Sarah Peachey getting involved as well.

She knocked it out of the park. When we started there were a few different roles that we were knocking about, but at the same time we are both aware that as artistic directors this wasn't our playground for us to indulge ourselves; we wanted to make sure that if we were doing something in it that it was something that we really wanted to do and something that we felt we could do well, but also that wasn't a main, big, famous lead role.

Obviously Bottom is well known in A Midsummer Night's Dream but Oberon and Puck are bigger roles with more to do with the plot. Similarly, Regan is absolutely pivotal in the events of King Lear but quite small in terms of line load. It was delightful to see Sarah bring that character to life because those that know her know that she is the most wonderful, radiant, positive, gleeful, playful person in the world, and then she's playing someone who is like not that at all - and so I think it was a real testament to her range as an actor that she was able to inhabit that as brilliantly as she did, and it was also just really fun to see her stab a dude with a broadsword.

Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen are absent from the list of scheduled plays - are there any thoughts on adding them in, or are you just going to draw a line under it completely?

Neither play is in the First Folio and that's always been my kind of touchstone. Both plays had been written by the time the First Folio was published and there was a reason that they were left out. I can't tell you what the reason is, because I wasn't there! That said, I set myself up to direct the First Folio plays, and very shortly they will be done and that's great; I feel like I've done what I set out to do, but there are other voices within our community that have expressed an interest in a completist version of things. Let's just say that there isn't a line being drawn, or if there is a line being drawn it's in pencil rather than pen. But we also have other ideas of things that we might be bringing to the table including, let's put it this way, a festive celebration maybe. So everyone will have to stay glued to our social media channels for announcements on that.

It is an extraordinary community and we refer to it internally among our alumni as a family, because it really feels that way; it's actually difficult having spent eight months building this thing to then say that's the last brushstroke, we've finished the painting, step away, because we don't want to lose with this either, and we don't want to see this extraordinary group of people go their separate ways. We have created a New Medium which, now we're eight months in, is one of those things that we kind of take for granted. We were if not the first among the very first to do it, and we've certainly been the most prolific creators in this medium.

So I suppose what I'd be excited to do now is to look at what we can do with time, budget, partnerships and collaborations, and whether we can get companies involved to support us in creating work, or if we can partner with technology companies who might have different platforms that we could experiment with in different ways. If you think about talent as a resource, it's an extraordinary resource and it would be insane in a way to, like Timon of Athens, "leave that in the ground".

And I think that there was a poll recently saying that audiences would still choose Zoom or other online theatre even when theatres can open more widely again.

That came out through the Creation Theatre case study I believe, and they have done three maybe four Zoom shows now; I think they've just announced that they're going to create a five-actor rep company next year. Those are the kind of partnerships that we're starting to look towards. We've done more of this than anyone else and we want to make sure that we are still able to push this forward, because the case has been made that people are still willing to pay for this.

No one's had to pay for our shows; we worked for eight months on this, 24/7, without remuneration - and that's not sustainable. We've been incredibly fortunate that we've been able to pull it off once, we certainly couldn't do it again, so we now need to look at how we can turn this into a viable future for ourselves as producers, and then to be able to bring on board all of our extraordinary talents as well, and make sure that if they're going to give their energy, enthusiasm and creativity that they're going to be remunerated for that.

CtrlAltRepeat have also been doing some good stuff - they started off with free shows, but have moved to ticketing for now.

Unfortunately we've been rather busy so we haven't had a chance to see any of their stuff, but I've been very excited by what's been coming out about it. And I think that kind of immersive, interactive space is something that we are really limited in how much we can achieve, so I think definitely looking at different mediums, platforms, and ways of working is what I would be really excited to explore. The CtrlAltRepeat people, like Creation, are part of this vanguard of people who are leading the charge on this and I hope that some of those at the top of the theatre pyramid acknowledge the role that this new work has to play, and get those who have helped to define it in to see how they could reinvent it with the benefit of their budget, resources, extraordinary creative teams, venues and spaces. I don't want to give too much away, but I've got big ideas for a couple of them as to how we could utilise them through this New Medium.

What has been your proudest achievement in the series?

There are a few top ones. I think Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth all stand out to me as like shows that - from a pure quality perspective, and proof of concept perspective - this medium works, and trying to take as much advantage of various features as possible. We got two On Comms which was an honour to receive, for Star Wars and Richard III. I think the all global majority Antony and Cleopatra feels like a real achievement, just because we have struggled to attract global majority talent, and it's been something that we have invested real, real energy in despite the short turnaround times and the constant pressure of producing the live show every week. The fact that we were able to create a show that was all global majority actors felt like a moment, and that we had done what we wanted to do, which was to create a safe space for global majority actors to come in and do Shakespeare and feel like they belong and that it is theirs for the playing. I think that really feels like a cool thing that we were able to achieve.

I'm really reluctant to claim these achievements, because they are all group efforts and they all come from every single person that's been involved - not just the whole creative team, and they need massive, massive credit and acknowledgment for the constant work they've all put in, but also all of the actors, creatives, people that have come to us with ideas. Everybody gets a share, just like the Patreon fund! I think that TSMGO as a movement should be patting itself on the back for these things much more so than me. It is a truly, truly beautiful thing, and it's been the honour and privilege of my life.

The Show Must Go Online series is available for free and forever on YouTube - the final show in the First Folio series (The Tempest) is live on 18 November at 7pm

Photo credit: Curse These Eyes

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